Often, I think, we retain a special affection for the first book we read by an author. Certainly that’s true for me with Gerard Woodward, whose second novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, the keystone in his Jones family trilogy, still floats high above his others. Recently I read the third volume, A Curious Earth, which I’d been holding off as I’d been told it was almost unreadably grim and sad – I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find that it was more funny than sad, though sometimes a bit of both. But it was his gift of humour that I had in mind when I started his new novel, his fifth and, at 500 pages, his longest yet.
Vanishing in parts exhibits Woodward’s comic gift at its best. For most of its first half it felt like reading William Boyd’s The New Confessions scripted by David Renwick – and that, I had better explain, is a double compliment. Like Boyd’s book (his best in my opinion), it tells the story, more or less, of a man’s life, within a wartime frame; like David (One Foot in the Grave, Love Soup, etc) Renwick’s best work, it has an absurd eye and a beautiful way of bringing together unlikely details. The man whose life we get is Kenneth Brill, and it comes within the framing device of his arrest and court martial during the second world war on suspicion of aiding the enemy. Brill is a painter – or “failed artist” as he put on his army registration form – and he maintains that he was painting fields near his family home to preserve them before the government paves them over for an airfield. This is around the hamlet where he grew up: Heathrow, in Middlesex. One of the aims of Woodward’s book – and one of its great successes – is to give back Heathrow to a culture where it means nothing more than a hell-on-earth airport. Heathrow’s development as a military airfield was begun in 1944; by the time it was completed, the war had finished. We presume Woodward’s aim was to create a sort of memorial to the place from the final words in the book (in his acknowledgements):
The hamlet of Heathrow was destroyed by a disgraceful misuse of wartime powers by the British government; that it was allowed to happen shames us all.
And the portrait of a vanishing place is one of the most satisfying aspects of Vanishing. This is dispensed in Brill’s memories of his childhood in Heathrow, where his father had an array of jobs including stage illusionist and prosthetic limbs supplier, though “in 1936 his business went up in flames. He took all his arms and legs out into the orchard, arranged them in a heap and set fire to them.” Most notably, his father had land which he farmed, in bitter rivalry with his half-brother Tiberius Joy, and the most entertaining parts of the book describe this battle, from a terrible burial suffered by Brill’s mother (pure Renwick, this) to a surprising discovery about sludgecake. Throughout, Woodward’s eye for imagery gives a freshness to scenes such as one where Brill plays doctor with his father’s medical supplies:
Countless times I had put a stethoscope to my sister Pru’s pale chest and listened to the slamming doors of her heart, or the sudden blasts of turbulence, the vortices and hurricanoes of her breath, or the belfry and breaking-glass clatter of her laughter.
There is much more of Woodward’s off-kilter invention and comic (and sometimes tragic) imagination throughout the first half of the book: the fate of Roddy, Tiberius Joy’s son; stripping with on-off best friend Marcus Boone; and all-male ballroom dancing in a Jewish school. Brill keeps moving schools – keeps vanishing – because of absurd developments and misunderstandings. Like his father’s interests – did I mention palmistry? – sometimes these seem random, chosen for their own sake and the delight they give Woodward to explore rather than for any intrinsic necessity to the story. (Woodward has spoken of an earlier draft of the book, where Brill had “a disrobing disorder, which meant he unconsciously lost his clothes at certain key moments.”) But the story is of a life, and you could reasonably say that a life is random and contains no overarching theme. Some of the elements – the aforementioned fate of Roddy Joy, or the excellent scenes involving a Polish art teacher – seem spirited away too suddenly, not fully explored or exploited. (But again, life, etc.)
But although this is the story of a life – a life so far – it is not chronological. As well as the framing device (and Brill’s subsequent court martial for espionage gives us an entirely unexpected but fitting conclusion), the scenes switch between his childhood in Heathrow and at school, and his wartime experiences as a camouflage artist: making things vanish. People arrive, unexplained – why is there tension between Brill and his colleague Somarco? – and allegiances seem to switch as the story jumps from between time and time. There is an uncanny representation of how memory works, with occasional repetitions or echoes of things mentioned before, as though Brill really is telling his story just as he remembers it. Yet as the story moves on, and we get to Brill’s time in art school and subsequently as a teacher, it seemed to lose some life for me, and certainly seemed to lose the comic touch that gave me so much pleasure in the book’s first half. We learn plenty about Brill through his activities and sexual relationships but there is something schematic about the emotional core of the character – though it does occur to me that this might represent a weakness on my part for traditionally explored characterisation. How many of us, after all, analyse our own personalities as cleanly as the novelist typically does for their characters? How realistic is it to do so? The second half the book seemed less vital to me, less surprising – perhaps inevitably as the story must stop opening up and begin to close down – but that I finished it at all, and with a fair amount of satisfaction, speaks of Woodward’s ability to sustain interest. In a way Vanishing, with its rejections of traditional time structure, of representation of character, of clean causation, is more novel than its frequently comforting qualities make it appear. There are strange things hidden in the countryside.